As a development worker and missionary, you NEED your free time, but alas… Going back home is not always the answer. Before you know it, you are hard at work in your home country and again… you don’t have time to focus on your goals for the near future, haven’t had time to work on any issues you’ve been facing in the past year, let alone the much-needed rest. So, there is a decent chance of burning out and giving up… and that is NOT what we want to “happen” to you.
You are valuable to us.
Sadly, approximately 5.1% of missionaries leave the field each year. This is a problem because the loss of missionaries means that the potential for deep and meaningful ministry to people is lost, which often requires long-term commitment. It can also mean completely losing a Christian representation in an area where Christianity is rare or even completely absent. In addition, of the 5.1% of missionaries who leave the field each year, about 71% leave for avoidable reasons. A survey of 40,000 missionaries and 600 mission agencies found that 43 percent of missionaries fail to save their long-term commitment to their field.
They come home and stop…..
That percentage equates to 17,200 missionaries who have left the field. That’s 17,200 difficult emails to supporters. That’s 17,200 people looking for a new job. And that’s 17,200 missionary opportunities that are vacant.
Some reasons for the problem:
According to many sources, some of the main reasons are (among others) issues like culture shock, burnout, unfulfilled expectations, conflict, lack of finances, and lack of “calling”…. Unfortunately, we cannot solve every problem, but we would like to work on one of the reasons why missionaries leave the field: Burnout.
Why do they burn up?
You can’t be a development worker or a missionary without being involved with people, and that is a source of burnout. The “problem people” need much more of your attention than the “pleasant people”. As a result, you begin to see even good people as problem people. You are supposed to be polite, tactful and caring so that you can feel that you cannot express the disappointment and frustration you feel inside. You laugh and make an evasive comment instead of expressing your feelings. Instead of getting a “thank you” from someone you helped, you get suspicious. There are locals that you really like, but you hesitate to get too close to them because you know you will soon return to your home country. It is easier not to establish a close relationship than to create one and then break it off in a few months.
Your work environment can be a source of burnout. That language school was so frustrating. When you arrived on the field, it seemed even more overwhelming. So many people to meet, so much to do and so little time to do it. You were doing God’s work and there was such a need that there was no time for breaks or vacations. Your colleagues had projects they were trying to fund, and you knew they were asking for money from the same people. Your director was supposed to be an encouragement, but he received so much criticism, and every compliment seemed to end with “but…” There were plans, policies, and procedures. There was so much red tape before you could start a project, followed by progress reports while trying to be a missionary or development worker and then more reports and more paper… sigh.
You may be a source of burnout yourself. If you lack confidence or have low self-esteem, you are a candidate for burnout. If you are unassertive, submissive, passive, or fearful and blame yourself for failure, you are a candidate. If your need for achievement, approval, and affection is too high, you’re a candidate. If you are impatient and irritable and don’t know how to handle anger and conflict, you are a candidate for burnout.
Can burnout be treated?
Yes, if caught on time! Missionaries and development workers who are so burned out that they actually leave the field are unlikely to return. Such people can recover from their burnout, but usually move on to a different kind of work and that is no longer missionary work. That is why it is important to detect a burnout as soon as possible and to take measures to prevent it from getting worse. If burnout is already on the rise, you probably know you’re burning out, but you probably don’t notice it in the early stages. The best early warning system is not you, but others who are willing to point out symptoms of burnout in you. Of course, you are their best early detection system, so check each other out regularly and keep in touch!
Can burnout be prevented?
Yes! You can do many things to prevent burnout. Below are some suggestions:
- Set realistic goals. Set specific goals so you know when you’ve reached them. Of course you want to save the world, but you’re not going to do it alone. (That is also why we work together with several organizations that also support us)
- Don’t get into a rut. Vary the way you do things, so they don’t become routine.
- Take breaks. This includes different types of breaks: (1) Coffee breaks – morning and afternoon. (2) Lunch – do not work during that time; leave the office/field. (3) One day a week – you know… Sunday rest…; leave town if you have to. (4) Vacations – take them. Maybe you recognize yourself in this: you don’t have the opportunity this year, it’s not convenient, and that year after year after year…
- Don’t take things personally. You are not responsible for everything that goes wrong.
- Leave your work at work. When you come home to your family, enjoy it.
- Learn to laugh at yourself. You are not indispensable, and sometimes things go wrong in a funny way.
- Provide a support group / home front. You need someone to encourage you and act as a mirror so you can look at yourself realistically.
- Live a life of your own. Have a hobby or activity that you just enjoy doing on a regular basis.
- Change jobs. If all else fails, request another assignment in your mission. No, we cannot save all the missionaries who sadly give up their jobs and go home. We wish we could, but we can’t. But… if you look at the ways mentioned above, how to prevent a missionary from getting burnt out…. We see another big problem. One of the things they MUST do is…:
But alas… many of the missionaries do not go on vacation. It just doesn’t come true this year and the year after that, you keep going year after year… This happens too often. There are a number of reasons for this. But before we get into that, we’d like to point out a huge problem…what do missionaries do when they do make time to go home or take leave?
What do missionaries / development workers do if they already go on leave?
When missionaries go on leave, they are often back at work… just in a different location… To name a few examples:
Sometimes it is helpful for missionaries to go “home” for a while to continue studying. Problems have arisen on the field and it would do their ministry good to take some time out for some further studies. This is one of the same reasons pastors and university teachers take sabbaticals.
Connection with family and friends
One of the most difficult aspects of missionary work is the separation from your old social environment. Besides the language and cultural differences, this is the most important factor that distinguishes missionaries from pastors and other full-time Christian workers who live in their own countries.
Reporting to the sending municipalities and your (financial) supporters
Missionaries are often accountable to their home congregation and those who sent them out, less to their mission organizations (even though they are also important). It is essential to have face-to-face time with those churches and people who occasionally support you to renew and maintain those relationships. In addition to renewing relationships, mission visits to churches and other missionaries are great opportunities to encourage those back home with stories of what God is doing in the mission field! Nothing beats hearing the person concerned directly.
The term currently popular is “mobilization”, but we prefer “recruitment”. The term “mobilization” is broader than recruitment, as it includes encouraging people to pray for, give to, and recruit for missions, as well as reaching out to international students and other immigrants in the local area.
Missionaries often make home visits, at least in part, because they need more money. Missionaries need more support for many different reasons. Sometimes the economy is bad and donations are declining. Sometimes faithful elderly supporters go to God’s house to be with the Lord. Sometimes the needs of missionaries increase when there is a change in ministry or when children are added to the family. And sometimes churches decide that long-term missionaries aren’t cost-effective or strategic, and they drop you completely… For all of these reasons and more, a missionary’s financial support level can become too low and they have to pick it up again. If support is very low, the missionaries may be coming home too early.
Rest and renewal / leave.
And finally…. Rest and renewal is needed… when the (often felt that way) obligatory visits to friends are over, presentations to their home church have been made, recruitment meetings have been completed, finances (hopefully) settled again…. Only then is there sometimes the time to take some rest yourself … when there is time left … and very often … there is none …
The word “leave” gives the idea of rest. Taking time to rest and recover is a very valid reason for a leave. Besides the initial culture shock of staying abroad, there is a certain level of culture stress that never goes away. Living day in day out in a culture with different values, beliefs and language than one’s own language can cause a certain amount of stress. You always have people around you who just don’t fully identify or understand you. People are always looking at you and happy to advise you on what to do and what not to do in terms of clothing, housekeeping and family planning. So it can be very helpful for missionaries and development workers to completely remove themselves from their host culture from time to time.
Why do many missionaries fail to take the time needed for rest and renewal?
There are a number of reasons:
- The demands on the “leave” home are HUGE. In the (often) three (or less) weeks that they do go “home” again, they are inundated with (more or less obligatory) tasks. (see above), But they do need time to get some rest and (if things did NOT go well on the mission field: some time to focus on what went wrong, how to prevent it in the future and how to deal with all the stress) that they (for example) have had to deal with in the past year, so even if they take time off: they are not… so sometimes they prefer to stay where they are….
- Their sending church does not see holidays as necessary or necessary… You are on a mission trip in a nice and warm country, that is a holiday, isn’t it? (No, that’s not it). We pay you to work for the Lord, it’s already a hobby… (no, it’s not) And sometimes the sending church stops paying when you take leave. Because vacation is not necessary, so we don’t pay you for that. (yes, it happens… we see it too often)
- The missionary himself uses the same (false) reasons that the sending church uses… It’s a hobby, it’s already a kind of vacation, God might come back today, so let’s keep working, the need is HUGE so I can’t stop …
- Leave costs money, and they should spend their money on the mission field, not on some kind of vacation.
- Why Missionaries Leave the Field Prematurely, Savanna Schneider, 2018 The Center for Missionary Mobilization and Retention
- Taylor, William D. Too Valuable to Lose: Exploring the Causes and Cures of Missionary attrition. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1997.
- Frontier Ventures. “Global Statistics.” Joshua Project, https://joshuaproject.net/people_groups/statistics
- What Missionaries Ought to Know About Burnout https://missionarycare.com/
- US Report of Findings on Missionary Retention, December 2003
- Why do Missionaries go on Furlough? https://www.dahlfred.com/